• It was going to be a rough night. I could feel it in a fundamental, bone-deep way. Even the ring of the phone was ominous and unsettling. I looked over to it in my father's study and hesitated to pick up the receiver. Sher Khan, my pet tiger, looked up from his resting place beside me in my father's chair. He nudged my leg with his nose and I took the cue to pick up the phone.


    "Mr. Long," came the voice of Lawrence, the mansions head butler. "There's a young lady by the name of Laura on the line for you. She says it is a matter of importance." My stomach dropped through the chair and to the floor. Laura was my ex. I hadn't spoken to her since she and I had broken up. What she wanted with me was beyond me, unless she had called to yell at me.

    I cleared my throat and tried not to sound scared as I told Lawrence, "Go ahead and connect her." He made an affirmative sound in his throat and I heard a distinct click of connecting lines.

    "Archie?" I heard her ask. My heart twinged with regret and my stomach sunk a little more.

    "Yeah, Laur. It's me." I replied, waiting for the storm to hit.

    "I-" she began, haltingly. "I need help."

    Confusion took the reigns of my emotional stage coach and kicked dread out of the saddle. "Help? With what? What's happening?"

    "Well," she began, a noticeable tension in her voice fading away. "It's Clint."

    I felt my eyebrows furrow. "Did he do something to you?" I asked quickly.

    "No! Nothing like that. He's the one who really needs your help."

    "My help with what, exactly?" I responded. I didn't like the idea of giving Clint any sort of help. It wasn't really the guy's fault, per se, that I didn't like him. You start to resent anyone your ex goes to great lengths to brag about to you, especially when that person takes your place. It didn't sting so much to be replaced, as much as it did to be so easy to forget.

    "He's run into some trouble with a gang," she explained.

    "Um, Laura, I hate to burst your bubble, but gang trouble usually starts when you become a member of the rival gang."

    "He's not a gang member!" Her voice was haggard and the defensive tone sounded practiced. She had definitely said that several times in the recent past. What had she been through? Her voice came out even more tired and worried the next time she spoke. "Clint's a good man. It's just that the police have it out for black guys!"

    I rolled my eyes. The line sounded faker to me than a three dollar bill. It made me wanna throw my fist through something, and at the time Clint's face seemed like a perfect choice. I didn't want to give Laura more fuel, though. So, I controlled the temper she had thought I had so much trouble with, and counted silently to ten before I spoke next, and even then I know I sounded irritated.

    "Laura, what does this all have to do with me?"

    "Well, Kris, you remember her, she told me about these people she donated blood to, and how you could use the counters they give you to get help from them. I didn't know you had anything to do with them until I called the line and I heard your last name. I figured if you were name-dropped, you'd have the pull to help me."

    I sighed heavily and rubbed the area between my eyes. "What exactly did you want me to do about Clint's gang trouble?"

    She was was silent on the other end of the phone. Afraid to answer me. As if I posed any sort of threat to her. I resented her manipulation and I was very sorely tempted to hang up the phone, right then and there. Teach her to act like that and ask for my help. I thought for a moment about how satisfied I'd feel if Clint got what he had coming to him.

    Then, I thought about what Laura would do to me if I left Clint out to dry. She'd put me through a guilt trip, the size of which would be unrivaled even by Jewish mothers. That thought alone was enough to keep me on the line, if for no other reason than to keep her off my back about one more thing.

    "Can you negotiate some kind of release?" she asked. "Get the gang to let him go? Maybe get him and me into witness protection?"

    "Witness protection is for the cops. If I need Clint off the map, the only way I can do it is to really kill him."

    She cut me off, and I could just picture her swiping her hand across the air in front of her. "Never mind that, then. Just save him?"

    I heaved another weighty sigh and looked down at Sher. The tiger gave me an unsympathetic glance and went back to his rest. Stupid cat. It was time to make my decision. Did I keep a firm hold on my pride and let Laura and Clint both get what they so righteously deserved? Or should I do what she asked and save him? I deliberated over it silently, making no effort to show Laura what I was thinking. Let her sweat a little.

    Finally, I answered. "Do you know where he's being held?"


    I strode up to the house on foot and looked it over. It was nearly the same as every other house in this neighborhood. That is to say, it was old, and starting to succumb to rot, insects and weather. The paint on the siding was flaking away, leaving the house looking like a primer-gray spotted leopard.

    I knocked politely on the door, and waited for a response.

    "Whatchu doing in our hood, honky?" the teen on the other side of the door hollered.

    "I'm here to deliver a pizza," I replied, keeping my mouth in a straight line.

    "I don't see no box!" he cried through the wood.

    "That's because you choose not to see it. I'm willing to bet it goes back to your childhood," I said levelly.

    "You makin' fun of me?"

    "Wouldn't dream of it, brother."

    "A'ight, that's it, I'ma cap this fool!" he shouted, the sound muffled. He was evidently facing away from the door, talking to someone inside the house. I heard the sound of a gun being cocked and I decided I had been polite long enough. I lifted one leg up and in one motion, brought it in close to my body and leaned back on my planted leg, driving the sole of my combat boot into the center of the door, splintering the wood, but not driving it open.

    A thunk came from the other side of the door, presumably the gangster falling back onto his butt. The image made me grin like a maniac, which primed my entrance perfectly because the second kick did fling the door open, if for no other reason than I had knocked the knob mechanism out of the frame. I stood in the door for half a second before jumping out of the way, bullets flying through the space where I had just been standing. I spun to the side and threw my elbow through a window and pulled a round device from my belt and tossed it inside.

    The tear gas grenade sounded excited as it began spewing the poison into the air. The weapon would neutralize anyone inside, without killing them or giving them any permanent injuries. Plus, if Clint got to suffer a little before I got to him, all the better. I gave the grenade thirty seconds to do its fogger thing before I lowered the goggles over my eyes and lifted the tied bandana to my face. The cover to my eyes, mouth and nose would do me a minimal amount of good if I spent long enough inside the house, so I knew I had to be quick. I inhaled quickly and ducked into the house through the doorway.

    I was quick enough to out-maneuver the door gangster as he shot at where I had just stood again. It seemed the gas was slowing his reaction time, as well as making him all around miserable. I knelt down and yanked the gun from his grip and patted him consolingly as I turned from him, his retching beginning already.

    I moved toward the back of the house and several more hoodlums, all rolling at the feet of the dining room table, shot at me but a few retaliatory shots from me made them think twice about firing again. I found the stairs next to the dining room and jogged up them, where the gas hadn't reached yet. Though the cloud of poison was encroaching upon the second floor quickly, it was taking time and I had time for a breath. I expelled the spent air in my lungs in half a second and took as long to draw in as much clean air as I could.

    As the door to my left opened up, I realized things were going to get more difficult. A large, potbellied black man pointed a shotgun at my head, and I got acquainted with the barrel. We stood there for a long second, and I noticed his hands were shaking. For crying out loud, he probably hadn't ever fired that thing. Shouting from the other end of the hall drew his attention and I didn't let opportunity's knock go unanswered. With my unoccupied hand, I pushed the barrel of the gun up to the ceiling and it went off, the buck shot tearing through the plaster above me and sending powder raining down on me.

    The big man's eyes were wide and rattled as he looked at the damage the shotgun had inflicted. I didn't have time for this. I pushed him to the side, and with in the same one-handed way I yanked the weapon from his sweaty grip and charged into the door at the end of the hallway, the tear gas curling at my heels. I leaped through the door, finding it not shut completely, and met Clint, seated between two other black men who bore the same navy blue on their clothes as the bandana gag in Clint's mouth. Shucks, I thought, Clint wouldn't get to experience the thrill ride of the tear gas.

    The two men on either side of Clint leveled semi-automatic sub machine guns at me and I pointed the stolen Uzi and shotgun at them and felt a crazy grin reach my face. "Howdy, boys. I come for a good ol' fashioned shoot out." They weren't as amused as I was; they opened fire at me, but I was already moving away from their aim. They traced me, and I found myself in a compromising position. I couldn't fire back at them without risking hitting Clint. While I hoped for his suffering, killing him myself simply wasn't acceptable rescue mission conduct. I barked out a sound of frustration and threw the guns down on either side of me.

    Left with no other option, I decided to let my original plan become my backup. I would stall the thugs long enough for the gas to creep in and subdue them, then I would grab Clint and be on my way. The tear gas was already seeping in like morning fog. I leaped towards the ceiling and bullets chased me up, but I came down between them and they were smart enough not to fire at one another. They let off the triggers, which was just fine by me, as I stood on my hands and drove a foot up into each chin. They stumbled back and I pulled the hunting knife I carried from my boot and in one upwards swipe, cut Clint's bonds as the gas hit us.

    The stench was horrible, but muted through my bandana. I pulled Clint from the chair by his arms and pushed him across the room toward the window. We'd never make it out of the house if we back-tracked. The gas would incapacitate us just as it had the others. So, I pressed my back into Clint's soft chest and slung his arms over my shoulders like the straps of a backpack and together, we leaped out the window. His considerable weight limited my leaping distance and I caught my foot on the ledge as we flew out the broken window, glass tumbling to the ground under us.

    We tumbled through the air and I wound up on the bottom, with Clint's crushing weight on top of me. I hit the ground first and was not happy about being Clint's cushion. I pushed him off to one side and chanced a look back at the house. The gas was spreading out through the window. The whole thing had taken seconds, nearly a minute, and the gunshots would take less than half a minute to be reported. We were already on borrowed time.

    I pushed myself to my feet and grabbed Clint's thick wrist. "C'mon, man! We don't have any time for this!" I urged him.

    He drearily lifted his head to look at me as I pulled him up. "Who are you? You a cop?"

    "Something like that. Laura sent me." That seemed to rouse him and he pushed himself the rest of the way to his feet on his own. I lead him to the non-descript white sedan I had picked from Dad's fleet of cars. I got in on the drivers side, the keys still in the ignition where I had left them. I fired the car to life and sped away from the house, kicking it into high gear until the first light, where I casually slowed to a stop at the red light as a police car cruised into view, his lights going already, and midway through his turn, the siren kicked into action.

    He drove by and sped down to the end of the street from the house we had just left. Relieved, but not stupid, I drove steadily but quickly towards the apartment complex Laura had told me about. I removed my driving gloves, which I had kept on during the whole invasion and rescue and stowed them in the glove box. I turned to Clint, who had wisely chose not to say anything until this point.

    "Let's go see Laura, Clint," I told him sternly.

    Laura answered the door to her apartment and practically leaped into Clint's arms. My stomach leaped into knots, but I busied myself taking note of her appearance. She looked tired, though she was clean and dressed well, which surprised me more than it should have. Laura wasn't a dirty person, this apartment complex just didn't inspire respect in me. More like pity. It was a seedy-seeming place and it made me want to keep my hands in my pockets.

    Laura released Clint and turned to me. "Thank you, Archie," she said, giving me a tired, but almost genuine smile.

    I raised an eyebrow at her. "Don't thank me. I won't be doing this again. If you get into trouble again that the cops can't help you with, don't call me." I turned and walked down the sidewalk. I heard her whisper something to him and her footsteps follow me. I stopped, no use in fighting the inevitable, I thought. Without turning, I growled "What, Laura?"

    Her footsteps stopped and I looked over my shoulder at her. "I-I just wanted to say I'm sorry for any trouble I may have caused you."

    Just like always, this wasn't easy. I turned to face her. "I forgave you a long time ago. But you didn't forgive me. The only reason you called me was because I had the power to help you, which was the only reason you ever wanted me around. You didn't really care about me, which was why it was easy to jump into a new life with Clint. Which is fine, it's your life, so you can live it in whatever way you want and it's none of my business."

    She opened her mouth to say something apologetic and self-pitying, but I didn't let her. "I'm not finished." Her eyes lifted from the concrete and met mine for the first time, which I didn't flinch from. I was no longer afraid of her gaze. "But don't act like you really care about me. Don't act like you ever did. Just do me that one little favor and respect my feelings enough to be honest." Neither of us said anything, and we just stood there staring at one another for a long minute. Then, she surprised me.

    "You think you're the only one who feels pain, Archie?" she said fiercely. "Well, I've got news for you, buddy. I really did care about you. You just didn't want to see it. You wanted so much to be right and to be the deserving one that you made me a monster!"

    I didn't take my eyes from her. I wasn't going to deny it out of turn, I was determined of that. That would only prove she was right if I went on the defensive. Instead, I decided I'd heard enough. "Y'know what? I don't really want to keep doing this. I just want peace. Can we just agree to go our separate ways?"

    That took the wind out of her sails and she visibly deflated, blinking. "Yes," she all but whispered.

    "Thank you," I said, much softer now. I turned to leave again, but she stopped me again.

    "Arch. Will you ever be able to talk to me again?"

    I shrugged. "I have no idea what tomorrow will bring. I just know that I"m very tired of all the fighting. I'm willing to be wrong, if that's what it takes to just put you behind me."

    "I never meant to hurt you," she said quickly and quietly.

    "Neither did I. But it still happened, didn't it?" I finally made it out of the apartment complex and once I got into my car, I slid the key into the ignition. I drove home in practiced motions, and parked the car in the garage, dropping the keys into Lawrence's hands as I passed him on the way to my room.

    I lay on my bed and alone in my room, as I lay with my head under a pillow, the tears came. Slowly at first, I felt them rolling down to the sheets, then in cascades while my body was wracked with silent sobs. The energy seeped from me in one long draw and when I was empty, the tears stopped. Suddenly, Sher was beside me, nudging his big muzzle under my arm and I hugged him, grateful for his soft fur and gentle presence.

    I must have fallen asleep there, because the next thing I knew, my father was rousing me. I still had my arm around Sher as he slept peacefully. He must have stayed with me to make sure I fell asleep. My father's strong hand on my shoulder shook me completely to lucidity and I raised my eyes to look at him.

    "I heard you were called from my study while I was gone," he said, softly and slowly. "Lawrence said it was an old girlfriend of yours?"

    I nodded as I rubbed my eyes, sitting up so that I could lean against him. Not obviously, but enough to keep his support. "Her name is Laura," I began, my voice rough. I talked. My father listened. My tiger slept. My world, though small, was complete.

    When my father finally left me alone to sleep, I spread out on my bed and breathed deeply, finally at peace with something that had bothered me long before that night. I drifted to sleep that night with a peace that as long as my Dad was there for me, it didn't matter what Laura had done or anyone would do.